Tourism in the Asia-Pacific region has seen impressive growth in recent years, aided by cheaper air fares, an expanding consumer class and increased exposure brought about by improved internet connectivity. Although these developments have led to significant economic benefits for countries across the region, they have also had some negative consequences, particularly for the environment.
Around 133.1m visitors travelled to countries in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2019, up from 129.2m in 2018 and 125.7m in 2017. While this figure was expected to reach 155.4m by 2022, it is likely that Covid-19 will dampen visitor numbers. Nevertheless, it is important for stakeholders in the tourism industry to ensure that any future expansion is managed as carefully and sustainably as possible in order to minimise disruption to natural heritage and local communities.
Leading the Way
Countries that have a long track record of attracting foreign visitors offer both positive and negative examples of sustainable tourism. The Philippines is the sixth-most visited country in the ASEAN region, attracting visitors to its beaches despite the logistical challenges of travelling to some destinations in the archipelago.
However, overdevelopment has had a detrimental impact on some parts of the country, most notably Boracay, one of the country’s best-known beach resorts. In April 2018 the government announced that the island would be closed to visitors for six months due to the impact of unchecked development, insufficient wastewater treatment and overcrowding. An emergency task force found widespread environmental violations, with litter and sewage being pumped directly into the ocean. At the same time, illegal fishing had reportedly decimated up to 90% of the island’s coral reefs.
Open for Business
The destination reopened in October 2018 and, despite some criticism of the decision, the rehabilitation appears to have had a positive impact on the island and surrounding environment. The maximum number of tourists was capped at 19,000 per day in order to prevent the environmental effects of overcrowding. In 2019 some 2m people visited Boracay. Additionally, the authorities have taken a series of measures to protect the area, including a ban on cigarettes and alcohol on the beach and in some public areas, a ban on single-use plastics, and the introduction of strict environmental accreditation procedures for restaurants, hotels and resorts. Airlines have also been told to reduce the number of flights to Godofredo P Ramos Airport, which serves the island.
While emergency measures appear to have been successful in Boracay, long-term plans to foster sustainable practices in the tourism industry are preferable to short-term solutions after damage has already been done. In light of this, the government revised the National Tourism Development Plan 2016-22 to improve environmental protection guidelines. Additionally, rehabilitation programmes have been proposed for other resorts in the archipelago, including Manila Bay, El Nido and Panglao.
In Indonesia the authorities have also recognised the need for a sustainable approach to tourism amid fears of saturation in Bali, the country’s best-known tourism destination. The 10 New Balis strategy was launched in 2016 in an attempt to replicate the island’s economic success in other destinations, as well as to ease the pressure on Bali, which suffers from issues such as water shortages due to the high number of visitors.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, the alternative locations had already become attractions in their own right, but would benefit from better access and more amenities. The destinations earmarked by the ministry to receive infrastructure investment include Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Borobudur Temple in Central Java and Mount Bromo in East Java. Since the policy was announced, the government has embarked on an airport expansion initiative as a means of supporting growing tourist numbers. For example, Silangit Airport in North Sumatra was upgraded in 2017, which enabled it to gain international status. In February 2019 local media reported that there were plans to further expand the airport to almost five times its current size.
In other parts of the region, where the tourism industry is nascent, there are opportunities to adopt best practices at the outset and avoid the mistakes of their neighbours. Myanmar’s tourism industry expanded rapidly between 2011 and 2015 as a result of economic and political reforms, but growth has slowed in the years since, largely a result of international criticism for its handling of violence in Rakhine State and the resulting drop in Western visitor numbers. Consequently, the authorities in the country have focused their attention on attracting tourists from Asia: Myanmar granted a visa exemption for tourists from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Macao and South Korea in October 2018. This approach has already seen some success, with the number of Chinese visitors to the country increasing from 198,256 in the first nine months of 2018 to 325,193 in the same period of 2019.
However, the approach has attracted some criticism, particularly regarding the proliferation of low-cost tour packages from China. These tours typically involve groups of visitors being taken to shops believed to be aligned with Chinese companies, with tourists often paying in Chinese yuan rather than Myanmar kyat. As a result, little to none of the money spent in this way contributes to the Myanmar economy. Tourism stakeholders in Myanmar have urged officials to take action on the issue and to ensure that local businesses see more benefits, making tourism growth more sustainable and inclusive.
Myanmar could also reap benefits from diversifying its destinations, as some of the country’s most popular sites have been under increasing pressure from visitors. As the tourism industry has opened up, most visitors to the country continue to be concentrated in the “big four” destinations of Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. Predictably, this rapid growth has brought with it environmental concerns, particularly at Inle Lake, which has seen a significant fall in water levels and quality due to overdevelopment in the surrounding area.
The government has taken steps to diversify the locations on offer, promising to promote other parts of the country and providing licences for businesses to operate in previously hard-to-reach places, such as the Myeik archipelago in the country’s south, remote Chin State in the west; and Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, in the east. However, there is a risk that previously undisturbed areas could suddenly receive a significant influx of visitors, so any such developments should be handled with care.
Although the concept of sustainable tourism is a relatively new one in a country that had largely remained closed to visitors until recently, there have been encouraging developments in this area. For example, the Myanmar Responsible Tourism Awards, which have been held annually since 2017, aim to promote the activities of tourism businesses that are operating in a sustainable way.
Another country in the Asia-Pacific region with a relatively new tourism industry is Papua New Guinea. Its remoteness, lack of infrastructure and security concerns have meant that the country has struggled to attract tourist numbers to rival its Pacific Island peers, among which Fiji is the most popular destination. Nevertheless, there has been progress in recent years; such as the country attracting 195,000 international visitors in 2018, around half of which came from Australia.
There exists potential for further growth, with ideas for expansion including agro-tourism initiatives inspired by the Cameron Highlands, as well as celebrations of the country’s unique culture, festivals and rituals. PNG’s remoteness also lends significant potential to adventure activities such as diving, snorkelling and trekking, while its biodiversity offers opportunities for wildlife watching.
The country’s tourism sector is receiving support from the World Bank through the PNG Tourism Sector Development Project, which was launched in 2017 and aims to implement an integrated approach to tourism in East New Britain and Milne Bay. The two regions were selected due to their considerable tourism potential, as well as the ability to contribute to the country’s broader economic growth. The $20m project has also provided support for community-led tourism companies as a means of creating jobs in the industry. Although such programmes can act only as a starting point, they nonetheless are an encouraging indication that the country’s authorities recognise the need for tourism to be sustainable and inclusive.
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